Teaching Children About Death

Now that the week is well underway (in fact, the week is almost over), I figured now would be a good time to delve into the subject of death. Surprise! In particular, I wanted to talk about teaching children about death. More specifically, I wanted to talk about teaching a toddler about death. Even MORE specifically, I wanted to share my experience with teaching my toddler about death.

Nellie has, unfortunately, been around death more often than I’d like. Not saying that she’s been involved in a lot of tragedy but since May of 2011, we have had 6 people in either our immediate or outside family die. Nellie herself has been around two dying people; Josh’s Nana, and my mother. She visited both while they were being cared for by hospice.

Nellie was almost two when my mom died in December of 2011. My mom had been in her life relatively regularly. I did about all I could manage considering my strained relationship with her. When Nellie came to visit while mom was in the hospice unit I could tell she was somewhat affected; the sight of someone lying unmoving and unresponsive in the bed was probably a little scary for her. I’m a strong believer that children are very perceptive so I am sure she picked up on the vibe in the hospice unit as well.

When mom died, I didn’t take the opportunity to teach Nellie what that meant, because she didn’t really notice. It’s not like my mom was around every single day. I took care to talk to Nellie about her grandma. I would talk about my mom when Nellie would play with the Twilight Turtle that was my mother’s last gift to her. I told Nellie who the turtle was from, and stressed the fact that it was a very important gift.

The first lesson regarding death that my daughter received was more recently. I haven’t blogged about this yet, but while she and I were away in Chicago, my cat Mungo died.

teaching children about death

Mungo, circa 2005 or so.

I’d had Mungo for over ten years. We’re not sure what happened – Josh said he was acting a little funny, and a few days later he was gone. When I got the news I was sad, of course – but not devastated. Friends and family gave me their sincere sympathies – which I appreciated – but when I told people that I was okay, I really meant it. His absence was weird at first; it was the first time in my entire life that I hadn’t had a cat. But once I’d gotten over the initial feelings of being kind of bummed and getting used to his furry little presence not being in the apartment, I was really okay.

Losing 6 family members – one of them being your mother – in a year kind of puts things into perspective.

Anyway. I was sitting on the floor playing with Nellie once we had gotten home. We’d been home for a day, and she hadn’t said anything about the absence of our cat. She was playing with a toy cat that she has when all of a sudden, she picked her head up and looked around.

“Cat? Where my cat?” she held her little hands out, palms up to the ceiling.
I paused.
“The cat is gone, Nellie,” I told her.
“I go find him.” she said with certainty and a little nod.
My heart tugged – just a little – and I took a deep breath. It was one of Those Moments in parenting – one that would lay a brick in the foundation of her Self. Even if she is too little to really remember – somewhere inside of her, what I had to say about such a heavy topic would stick. Teaching a child about death is one of those things that holds such responsibility it’s almost scary. What I said in that moment could affect her forever: I could teach her to fear death and view it as a horrible, unfair part of life and leave her unable to cope or process when someone she loves dies… Or I could teach her to embrace and accept it as an inevitability; something we all must go through – every one of us – and to take it as it comes with as little fear as possible.

I chose the latter.

“No, baby,” I said. “We can’t go find him, because he is gone. Mungo is dead, and that means that he is gone. And he is never coming back. And that is okay.”
I could have stopped there and she probably would’ve been fine, but I’m awkward and over-analyze everything so I continued.
“And it’s okay to feel sad. And it’s also okay to not feel sad.”

A little heavy for the toddler perhaps, yes?

I explored her face, watching for a reaction. She looked at me for a moment, considering, and said:

“I watch Beauty and the Beast!” She scrambled up off the floor and to the television.

And that was that.

She asked about the cat one more time, this time when Josh was around. He handled it similarly to how I did, she didn’t have much of a reaction, and she hasn’t asked about Mungo since.

I am sure that this will not be the last lesson we will have in regards to the subject of death and dying. When she is older, the finality and gravity of death will mean more and the conversation will probably be more difficult. It’s an interesting thing, being handed these tiny human beings and being expected to teach them these lessons about life – lessons that some full-grown adults have yet to fully accept and absorb. It’s scary, it’s humbling, and it’s an eye-opener that our words as parents have the power to affect our children to their very core.

What experiences do you have in teaching children about death? Have you had to have that talk yet? What will you say if you haven’t?


  1. We try to be open with The Punkin about relatives who have died, from my grandfather (Pappaw) who died when I was pregnant with The Punkin, up to my great-grandmother (Konka) who died just last year (at 100!). She will occassionally talk about them, even though she never met Pappaw and doesn’t remember Lance’s dad who died when she was 6 months. Which is what we want; we want her to grow up knowing who these people were and what she meant to them.

    She likes to list the people who have died. If we mention Pappaw, she will often say “he’s in heaven with Grandpa Cecil and Konka and Hank.” Hank being the chimpanzee from the Chattanooga Zoo. (“He’s my favorite monkey”, she’ll say.) I love her 5 year old theology, it makes as much sense as anything I’ve come up with.

  2. This post is so timely for me. My daughter watched me crying this morning before we left to go drop her off to a friend’s house. I have a close friend battling cancer and things are not going well. My daughter has seen me cry about many things, but this one has to be the worst feeling of all. I also lost a close friend unexpectedly when my daughter was really young. I guess I don’t really have advice about how to talk to them about these things beyond my usual tactics of being honest and real and not giving too much detail unless she asks. She asked a few questions about my friend’s cancer today and is so thoughtful, I’m the basketcase…

  3. Well Cassidy at 12 is fascinated with death and the process it entails. She isn't morbid about, but rather tries to understand how different people handle it. She has a fantastically strong faith in God and extends that grace and calm to others in their time of need. She is my little missionary I guess. She gave me and Mom some of her strength during the recent death of my Granny.

  4. Death is one of those uncomfortable subjects, no matter what age you might be, and for many people, it can be just as traumatic if the death is that of a pet versus a human. I’ve had my share of family loss — some sudden and tragic, some in hospice, one of my grandfathers died on my birthday, and my elderly Second Mother is in a nursing home, so in a way, I’m a little hyper-sensitive. I’ve never been good about the subject. How do you explain to a toddler or a child that someone or something isn’t coming back or won’t be found? The last tragedy was a family member who committed suicide. There are little ones in our large, extended family, so you can imagine, explaining that was not easy at all. Although I don’t have children, having younger cousins, nieces, nephews — doesn’t matter — delivering the news crushes you in part because you’re sad for them and the last thing you want is for them to experience pain/hurt.
    Brainy Pint Sizer recently posted..A visit to The September 11th Memorial…A New Yorker’s Tale.

  5. All things codinderes, this is a first class post

  6. Eita, o comentário da sua mãe me inspirou…. uma base branca com um carimbo prata e glitters 3D devem ficar show!!!!!!!!Vai ser uma opção para mim.Belíssimo o post Lari.bjs

  7. I’m not gonna try and convince you I tried the appropriate amount as quantified by the department of weights & measures to be funny (I have a certificate,) but interestingly enough I DID fall down a couple of steps at work yesterday, so there you go!

  8. Curioso che in italia si usi da sempre “hostess” per le donne che in principio avevano l’esclusiva di tale mestiere, e “steward” sia entrato in uso molto dopo coi primi uomini assunti in tale mansione, mentre in inglese si usi “stewardess” per le donne che è un chiaro derivato di “steward”…

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